Our Limits Transgressed
Environmental Political Thought in America
Bob Pepperman Taylor
Is democracy hazardous to the health of the environment?
Addressing this and related questions, Bob Pepperman Taylor analyzes contemporary environmental political thought in America. He begins with the premise that environmental thinking is necessarily political thinking because environmental problems, both in their cause and effect, are collective problems. They are also problems that signal limits to what the environment can tolerate. Those limits directly challenge orthodox democratic theory, which encourages expanding individual and political freedoms and is predicated on growth and abundance in our society. Balancing the competing needs of the natural world and the polity, Taylor asserts, must become the heart of the environmental debate.
“This is a valuable book. Taylor economically and fairly categorizes and critiques most of the major environmental writers of [the twentieth] century and offers a compelling set of political criteria for evaluating their contribution.”
—Environmental History Review
“A clear, dispassionate account of several important strains of American environmental thought since the early 19th century.”
“Bob Pepperman Taylor, in his fine new book, has uncovered a series of awkward fits between words and deeds, troubling discrepancies that have shaped how twentieth-century American environmentalists have struggled to make sense of humanitiy's complex relationship with nature.”
—Journal of American History
“This study should be welcomed, and his explication of the often obscure varieties of environmental thought is noteworthy for its clarity and brevity.”
—Western Historical Quarterly
“Taylor’s central message, that environmental thought is political, provides needed historiographic insight into the history of American environmentalism and offers an important perspective for approaching contemporary environmental problems.”
—American Historical Review
“The contemporary environmental movement needs to step back from the hurly-burly of its political struggles to do some deep thinking about ends and means. This book is a useful tool for doing that. It is a clearly written, well organized, and thoughtful guide to many of the more important thinkers who have appeared in recent decades on environmental issues and ethics. Best of all, the author points us to what may be the central question of our times: how can we achieve a society that is at once true to our democratic traditions and yet recognizes in nature an intrinsic set of values?”
—Don Worster, author of Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas
“This book is must reading for all serious students of environmentalism and environmental politics. It is also a major contribution to the understanding of contemporary American political ideas. It is one of the most important and successful attempts to analyze and synthesize the major themes and trends of modern environmental thought. In order to discover the central fault line among environmental thinkers, Taylor replaces the conventional distinction between preservationism and conservationism with the far more satisfactory distinction between pastoralism and progressivism. Most importantly, he recognizes that environmental thought cannot be understood apart from its broader political underpinnings and implications. He deftly and sympathetically strives to understand the political vision contained in the work of each of the major American environmental thinkers and how it informs their understanding of the relationship between persons and nature.”
—Marc Landy, coauthor of The Environmental Protection Agency: Asking the Wrong QuestionsSee fewer reviews...
Contemporary environmental thinking derives, according to Taylor, from two well-established traditions in American political thought. The pastoral tradition, which he traces from Thoreau through John Muir to today's deep ecology, biocentrism, and Green movement, appeals to moral lessons that nature can teach us. The progressive tradition—which he traces from Gifford Pinchot to the apostate neo-malthusians (who reject the commitment to democratic equality) and liberal theorists like Roderick Nash, Christopher Stone, and Mark Sagoff—focuses on the role that nature plays in supporting a liberal democratic society. This analysis sidesteps the usual anthropocentric-biocentric formulation of the debate, which tends to center on the most appropriate conception of nature abstractly considered, and reorients the discussion to a consideration of the relationship between our political and environmental values. If we are to stem the thoughtless pillaging of the environment, Taylor contends, that's where the changes must occur.
Any satisfactory resolution of the tension between the garden and the machine must draw upon the best of both the pastoral and progressive traditions, Taylor concludes. The best of pastoralism teaches us that any reform must challenge the human arrogance and crude materialism that permeates much of liberal society.
In addition to Nash, Stone, and Sagoff, Taylor discusses other contemporary thinkers such as Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, Robert Heilbroner, William Ophuls, Julian Simon, Robert Paehlke, J. Donald Moon, Kirkpatrick Sale, J. Baird Callicott, Holmes Rolston, Paul Taylor, Barry Commoner, and Murray Bookchin.